Wednesday 19 October 2011

Dialectic and Absence

Bhaskar's 'Dialectic - the pulse of freedom' is one of the most difficult books I have read. Yet it has fascinated me - not least because Bhaskar's earlier outlining of 'Critical Realism' (CR) seemed so sensible in the way that brilliant things do, and Dialectic is clearly presented as the successor to that thinking: "Dialectical Critical Realism" (DCR). CR seemed sensible because it simply (!) demanded that we accept the existence of:
causal mechanisms (as an ontological foundation) within which we see:
    1. intransitive mechanisms (existing independently of human agency)
    2. transitive mechanisms (existing through human agency)
All of which seems sensible: physical mechanisms (intransitive) are different from social mechanisms (transitive). Moreover, it allows Bhaskar to formulate the Transformational Model of Social Activity whereby transitive mechanisms exist between agency and structure where agents 'reproduce and transform' social structure, whilst social structure 'conditions and constrains' human agency.

So far so good.

But of the things that this neat formulation doesn't address, in my view the most significant is is time. Bhaskar seems aware that his insistence on mechanisms presupposes an abstracted temporal dimension - a kind of conflation of clock-time of intransitivity and psychological time of society; but the abstraction of clock-time has to stand outside the transitive-intransitive formulation. This is unsatisfactory.

So there must be a deeper thing which drives the mechanism. This seems to be where Dialectic and Absence come in with DCR.

Now it was fairly easy to justify with common sense the existence of intransitivity and transitivity. But it is hard to get a common sense grip on the ontological priority of 'Absence' or 'not-being'... and this is where many people have problems. And certainly I was struggling... until fairly recently when I have been thinking about symmetry and death (see and wondering if there might be something in it which is practical.

The issue is certainly tied-up with the issue of time, but it has occurred to me as I have delved into the work of Luhmann and Leydesdorff that 'being' is inconceivable without 'anticipation'. In fact, and perhaps paradoxically, time is inconceivable without anticipation. Now there's a thought... ;-)

That opens up possibilities for thinking about not-being as opposed to being, and the way in which anticipation changes from possibility to actuality. Bhaskar envisages a materialist dialectic process driving this, much in the way described by Marx, but Bhaskar gives a richer description of the process, making use of his constructs of transitive and intransitive mechanisms, and how intransitive and transitive work together through agency producing a driving emancipatory force through a deeper understanding of scientific progress. This allows him, for example, to describe how theory-practice gaps are dialectical and drive a process of development of scientific paradigms.

In "Dialectic" everything becomes dialecticised: what are conventionally conceived of as concepts are instead shown to be dialectical processes: for example, "truth" is seen as having four dialectical 'moments'. The advantage of this is that history, politics and ethics are shown to be vitally important in scientific as well as social thought. That seems right to me. But what about the common-sense justification for dialectic, and particularly absence? That's where it's let me down (and Bhaskar's own examples have seemed a bit weak too)

I want to propose my solution for this.

Absence is indeed real and ontologically prior. But 'dialectic' is the name we give to moving through a landscape as it is delimited by absence. In fact, what absence does is demarcate a symmetry where there is a hierarchy of possible action: some actions fit the symmetry naturally; others simply don't. In terms of drawing attention to absence in everyday life, we need to draw attention towards death. Its power to demarcate a symmetry is evident and ample examples can be given from music and literature. The twilight fantasy world of the 1001 nights is a classic example of absence working to demarcate the territory between being and an erotic not-being which draws us into the stories (being in Istanbul at the moment is making me think a lot about this!)

But with a postulated symmetrical demarcation of symmetries, there may be some sort of mathematics. I'm particularly intrigued by this at the moment. Whether we are analysing a learning process, or the flow of a piece of music, or the flow of curiosity, I wonder whether a process of absence-demarcated symmetry might provide us with a model of anticipation which is free from Newtonian clock time.

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